What Happened?

Everybody thought the Wolves would contend for an NBA crown this year, and some picked them to win it. Not anymore: how egos and contracts turned one of the league's highest-paid teams into middle-of-the-pack underachievers.

At the beginning of the year, Saunders spelled Szczerbiak with Hassell and Spree with Freddie Hoiberg off the bench. When the coach shored up his perimeter defense by installing Hassell as a starter and shifting Sprewell to small forward, Hoiberg's playing time was cut in deference to Wally and Spree. Szczerbiak earned the assurance that his minutes would not be severely curtailed. One of the few bright spots on this year's club, he has begun to dissolve his reputation as a ball hog, turnover machine, and befuddled defender, and displayed maturity by volunteering for the bench.

But Hoiberg, too, deserves consideration, even if he never asks for it. A persuasive case can be made for Freddie being the Wolves' second-most valuable player thus far this season. Despite ranking eighth on the team in minutes played, Hoiberg has generated the club's second-highest point differential during his time on the court. The issue of how many of Spree's minutes Hoiberg should be allotted highlights the friction between the "star system" that is a fact of life throughout the NBA, and frequent statements by Saunders and McHale that the "five guys who play together best" will be the ones who play.

The website 82games.com contains a variety of statistical formulae to determine a player's worth. As of January 25, one formula reveals that, in a normal 48-minute game, the Wolves outscore their opponents by 8.6 points when Hoiberg is in the game and get outscored by 0.6 points when he sits. By contrast, the Wolves outscore their opponents by 2 points per 48 minutes when Spree plays, but perform slightly better, raising their edge over their opponents to 2.4 points per 48 minutes, when Spree is on the bench. Hoiberg's statistical superiority to Sprewell in this calculation is even more remarkable when you consider that while Spree has benefited from playing alongside the starters for the vast majority of his minutes, Hoiberg is more often on the court with the backups. For example, through last Tuesday, Spree had played beside KG for 1,090 of his 1,182 minutes, while Hoiberg reaped the rewards of Garnett's presence for just 350 of his 587 minutes.

After Wednesday's win over Atlanta, assistant coach Randy Wittman (subbing as head coach for the flu-ridden Saunders) disclosed that the coaches had decided that "Freddie does too many good things not to give him minutes. Not just his shooting, but always being in the right spot and providing defensive help, coming up with all the little things. We don't have many guys who do that."

When Spree likewise was bitten by the flu a couple of weeks back, that extra time for Freddie came at Sprewell's expense. Over a 3-game span, Hoiberg played 58 total minutes to Spree's 52, outscoring him 35-9 in the process. In one sense, all this means is that a healthy Hoiberg can outperform an ailing Sprewell. But what can't be discounted is that the Wolves won all three games.

According to the Star Tribune, in the last of those three games, a Target Center tilt against Detroit, Spree was "especially peeved" about his lack of playing time and made it "clear to Saunders and fans near the team's bench that, once out in the second half, he had no interest in returning." That's the pecking-order problem Saunders must finesse if the Wolves are to have any hope of salvaging this season.

It is a problem further complicated by the fact that this will be Spree's last season in a Wolves uniform. We know this because when his name suddenly cropped up in a slew of trade rumors a few weeks ago, Taylor announced that he had no intention of trading him--not because of his value to the ballclub, but because Taylor wants the financial windfall of knocking his $14.6 million salary off the payroll at the end of the season. There is a distinct possibility that the $21-million deal Spree found insulting three months ago is no longer on the table. Barring a huge upgrade in his performance or an improbable championship run by his team, that would mean Sprewell would be forced to accept much less, with the Wolves or somebody else, if he wants to continue playing in the NBA.

If the Wolves' experience in February is as subpar as it was in January, the temptation will increase to point toward the future and allot more minutes not only to Hoiberg, but to Hassell and Szczerbiak, who are both signed for at least the next five years. And if that happens, it will be difficult for Cassell to maintain his cool. Taylor's decision not to negotiate with either Sammy or Spree until the end of the season can't have gone down well with the gifted point guard, who already feels slighted by the terms of his current deal.

One thing is certain; Cassell will not be a positive presence on the ballclub next year if his deal isn't extended. If Cassell believes Taylor has doubts about his future with the ballclub, Sammy inevitabley will make himself as much of a lame duck as Spree. And if that's the case, the Wolves should trade him sooner rather than later.

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